#cftrecommendations Leadership Learning environment

Drivers of #innovation, what works in schools?

I am reading an article in McKinsley Quarterly, April 2015, The Eight Essentials of Innovation written by Marc de Jong, Nathan Marston, and Erik Roth.  While the research and conclusions they draw come from work in the corporate sector, I can’t help but look for ways it applies to innovation in a school setting.

The authors’ research leads them to identify eight essentials for creating an innovation culture (see exhibit #1).

  • Aspire
  • Choose
  • Discover
  • Evolve
  • Accelerate
  • Scale
  • Extend
  • Mobilize

Exhibit #2, testing for innovation, provides an explanation of the eight essentials that an organization needs to develop in order to promote successful innovation.

How might these apply to a school setting?


Schools need leaders who are convincing catalysts for purposeful and meaningful change.  Without a leader who has a vision and can mobilize his or her team, schools tend to “stay-the-course,” leaving innovation to chance.


Schools need to decide on the “right programs” to support that will lead to continuous improvement in the learning environments for all students.


“Innovation also requires actionable and differentiated insights.” (page 6).  It strikes me schools need to do a better job of creating partnerships with organizations that know how to innovate and have something to contribute to the process of innovation in a school setting.  What we don’t do particularly well in schools is prototype programs, iterate them along the way, test them in the field and make informed choices about which ones positively impact our cultures.  The author’s write: “One thing we can add is that discovery is iterative, and the active use of prototypes can help companies continue to learn as they develop, test, validate, and refine their innovations.” (page 7)  In schools, we are not great at designing a disciplined approach to “develop, test, validate, and refine.”  Is it any wonder why we struggle with innovation?

At Westminster Schools in Atlanta, where the Center for Teaching is located, we took 300+ faculty, staff and administrators in groups to twelve organizations that are leading the way to change some aspect of the Atlanta landscape.  The goal was to spend time talking with their leaders, learning from their approach, and  identifying what these twelve organizations might have in common so that we might apply what we learned to our leadership in the field of education.


“Established companies must reinvent their businesses before technology-driven upstarts do.” (page 7)  From your own experience in schools, do you think we do a good job of reinventing ourselves so as not to become obsolete?  The authors point out that most companies struggle with “risk tampering” until they find themselves under threat.  Often it’s too late at that point.  For schools, I think we have to re-evaluate our position in the landscape of education to remain relevant for what is interesting and meaningful for students to know, understand and do, while we also stay true to core knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that all students must acquire to be successful.  One way we can do this is by supporting pilots, experiments, and prototypes outside of the “core curriculum” to discover optimal ways to shape the future of our schools.


How do we get in our own way of innovating in schools?  What are the obstacles to accelerated innovation?  These are questions we should be asking and searching for solutions.  The authors write: “Are managers with the right knowledge, skills, and experience making the crucial decisions in a timely manner, so that innovation continually moves through an organization in a way that creates and maintains competitive advantage, without exposing a company to unnecessary risk?” (page 8)  What about school leadership teams and classroom teachers?  Do we have “right people on the bus” (using Jim Collins terminology) to accelerate innovation in critical areas?  If a school is interested in project-based learning, does it have the right leadership team to understand, promote, and support the effective use of the strategy?  Does it have the right teachers in place to implement the strategy, assuming they are given the right amount of support?  If our answer is no, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the innovation we desire doesn’t take root and grow.


I struggle with how this essential attribute applies to a school.  If an innovation is important to the learning environment of children, then it seems to me there is little to discuss about scaling up.  All teachers and all classrooms should consider embracing the innovation.  Seeding innovation in schools involves supporting a creative, risk-taking teacher who wants to try something new.  If the experiment is successful shouldn’t other teachers seriously consider adopting it as well?  We need to nurture a professional culture where faculty are encouraged to share with each other, learn from each other, and iterate their practice based on the successful experimentation of colleagues?  Since the purpose of schooling is to meet the needs of all students, innovation should impact all students.

In Faculty Forum, our opening week at Westminster Schools, we devoted two-hours of the third day to faculty-led workshops on a variety of topics. The topics ranged from general technology integration, open-air painting, designing a WordPress blog, 3D printing for beginners, STEAM workshop, data management using Google and other tools, and instructional strategies for diverse learners.  The value of this professional development was that faculty learned from their peers and improved their practice in simple ways.  Scaling up using this approach was well received.


The authors write: “Successful innovators achieve significant multiples for every dollar invested in innovation by accessing the skills and talents of others.” (page 10)  In schools, I believe we need to be more open to setting up partnerships with other schools and organizations to leverage available expertise we might not have.  Innovation can be accelerated if we learn to identify the gaps in our organization and pinpoint the resources we need to fill them in.  We have to break down the culture of isolation in schools.

High-performing innovators work hard to develop the ecosystems that help deliver these benefits. Indeed, they strive to become partners of choice, increasing the likelihood that the best ideas and people will come their way.  (page 10)


How do leading companies stimulate, encourage, support, and reward innovative behavior and thinking among the right groups of people? The best companies find ways to embed innovation into the fibers of their culture, from the core to the periphery.”  (page 11)

I think this quote from the authors’ work illustrates the challenge we face in schools.  We have to lead with the goal of building an innovative culture and rewarding faculty who are willing to test the boundaries, looking for ways to improve the learning environment for all students.


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